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Great balls of fire

The Saturday night sky over the Enon community was a-blaze with balls of fire.

A stranger to rural eastern Pike County might have been alarmed at the sight. But the sounds of merriment from young and old would have quickly eased any alarm as balls of fire were tossed from one to another.

Barbara Currie is quick to say that “No, we’re not teaching children to play with fire. “We’re teaching them about traditions.”

And, in the context of tradition, the annual fireballing in Enon, Alabama is a unique fun-learning experience.

Fireballing or fireball throwing is the practice of lighting kerosene-soaked balls of yarn or tightly wound rags and tossing the fiery objects outdoors at night. The practice dates back to the 1920s and 1930s in America but the tradition probably originated “across the big water” as early as the 16th or 17th centuries.

The Willie Henderson family of the Enon/Josie community is keeping the fireball throwing tradition alive in the Pike County area and, to a one, they believe it’s a tradition worth keeping.

“Fireball throwing was more of a tradition in my mother’s family, the Ingrams, than in my dad’s,” Currie said. “But he remembers throwing fireballs as a young boy. So the tradition goes back a long way.”

For the past 20-something years, somewhere around New Year’s, the Henderson family– Currie and her brothers, Dennis, Durwood, Dwight and David — bush hog the pasture, open the gate and “throw” a big community party and keep an old tradition burning brightly.

“Fireball throwing is a lot of fun and it gives people something different to do and a unique way to celebrate New Year’s,” Currie said.

Currie’s “part” in the New Year’s tradition is, without a doubt, a most valuable one. She makes the fireballs and it’s a yearlong undertaking.

“The fireballs have to made from 100 percent cotton,” she said. “I can remember Mother telling how her family would sit around the fireplace during the long winter nights and unravel their old socks and wind the strings into fireballs. Back then, the fireballs were thrown on the Fourth of July and Christmas, too, — a poor man’s fireworks.”

Currie said it’s difficult to find “all-cotton” socks these days, so she relies on crocheting yarn for her fireballs.

“I start with an old sock for the core of each fireball,” Currie said. “I just wad it up and then start tightly winding yarn around the sock. At some point, I stop winding and start stitching. If you don’t sew the balls together, they will fall apart when they start burning.”

Currie then soaks the fireballs in kerosene for several months to ready them for the annual fireballing throwing. Her stock usually numbers about 25.

People of all ages and from everywhere come to throw the flaming kerosene balls. Some wear gloves but the more adventurous or more experienced throw barehanded. Rubbing the hands with dirt provides some measure of protection for the bare hands.

“Kerosene burns real slow so, if you catch a ball and throw it quickly, it won’t burn you,” Currie said. “You’ve got to get rid of it in a hurry. If you hold it, it will burn you.”

The Hendersons have been hosting fireball throwings for more than 20 years and thousands of people have participated.

“We’ve only had one injury,” Currie said. “A broken finger from catching a ball. We encourage everyone to have respect for fire and we don’t allow any cutting up. Parents come with their children and they show them how to throw the balls and how to be aware of what all is going on around them.”

This year, the crowd at the Hendersons’ fireballing numbered 250 or more – a big crowd that Jack Frost sent home early.

“It was hard to tell how many we had because there was a lot of coming and going,” Currie said. “It was so cold. Even the food froze on the tables.”

The Henderson brothers always provide the chili, hotdogs, chicken fingers, pizza and a huge bonfire and the “guests” bring their favorite side dishes. There’s as much munching and backside warming as there is fireballing.

This year’s event was the coldest that anyone can remember and the patriarch of the family, Willie Henderson, sat around the roaring fire with family and friends.

“Throwing the fireballs is a lot of fun for young folks but I just enjoy sitting by the fire with all my family around and my friends,” Henderson said.

Fireball throwing is more than tossing balls of fire in the air. It is, as Henderson said, about family and friends and about the tradition of homemade fun from an era when folks had to create their own entertainment.

The Hendersons are dedicated to the tradition and to the fun and fellowship it brings in celebrating the coming of a New Year.

Their hope is that, for everyone, the year 2010 will be as bright as a sky filled with flaming kerosene balls.